The piano trio — with bass and drums — is one of the classic jazz combos that developed during the bebop period. Earlier pianists often played alone or with a drummer. Later, Nat King Cole popularized the piano-bass-guitar combination; among his followers we find Ray Charles and Oscar Peterson. But from the 1950s on, pianists have gravitated toward drums and bass. Sometimes these were pickup affairs, but some, most prominently Ahmad Jamal, Peterson, and then Bill Evans, have chosen this type of trio for their work. The challenge has been to make it more than just a piano with accompaniment — to create a unique trio voice. In the late 1950s Evans, in tandem with some remarkable bass players, created the ideal modern jazz piano group, influential as much for his general musical conception as for his instrumental style. Among the latter-day descendants of Evans we must count Lynne Arriale.

Arriale came to jazz late. She started her career as a classical pianist, but after graduating from the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music she turned her attention to improvised music and quickly made her mark, winning a prestigious jazz piano competition and touring in Japan with some of the finest keyboard artists in the music. In 1993 she released her first trio recording, and a decade and seven more albums later, she has established herself as one of the top mainstream pianists in jazz.

Arriale's inspirations are fairly clear: she is a firm disciple of Bill Evans and of pianists he inspired, such as Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea. From Evans she took a lyrical yet rhythmically muscular approach to melody, but also an interactive conceptualization of the jazz piano trio. Although she stays firmly in command, she works interactively with her fellow musicians in a manner that allows the music to breathe in between the instruments. Over the years she has used a number of fine bass players, but Steve David has consistently been her drummer. He is a dazzling percussionist, equally at home keeping straight time with his brushes and roaring through complex multiple rhythms with sticks, but he never overwhelms the other instruments.

This trio is firmly founded in the mainstream modern jazz tradition, but Arriale likes to reshape familiar tunes in a personal manner. She will take a Thelonious Monk composition like "Evidence" and slow it down, so that it reveals new qualities and a novel melodic pace. Just as often, she will play her own songs, and her compositional skills have obviously developed over the years, as is documented on her eight albums. She has been to Ann Arbor before and has developed a local following. She returns on Thursday, May 13, to help the Firefly Club celebrate its fourth birthday.